Nothing is really disposable

My ride to work route goes through several industrial estates, past a McDonalds, and alongside a university. Naturally the roads, footpaths, and bushes in the area are clogged with an inordinate amount of rubbish. Over the last four years it has amazed me how I can pass the same rubbish week in, week out, and it never moves until there is a big storm at which point it is magically whisked away, out of sight, out of mind, to be replaced a new crop of flotsam from somewhere upwind.

Last week I finally got around to buying myself a long “claw on a stick” device that means I can pick up rubbish without getting on and off my bike, having to bend down, or getting my hands grubby. I take a shopping bag with me, fill it up with rubbish, then empty it into a bin when I get to the end of my ride.

Today's haul included a balloon on ribbon, several lengths of polystyrene, juice boxes, plastic water bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups, and straws.
Today’s haul included a balloon on ribbon, several lengths of polystyrene, juice boxes, plastic water bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups, and straws.

Taking an extra 5 minutes to get to work gave me time to pack a standard plastic shopping bag with rubbish. On the way home I did that again, and this time also picked up a huge length of pink plastic bubble wrap that has been sitting in the bushes for weeks.

I like to think that this will make a difference – there are a lot of plastic cups, plastic bags, straws, and juice boxes that won’t wind up in Port Phillip Bay because of me. There was quite a lot of polystyrene (where does it all come from?) which breaks down into little white balls that look just like fish food in the water, and it’s now safely in bins because I took those 10 extra minutes out of my day.

But in practice I will still look at those spaces and be appalled by how much rubbish there is there. I can’t pick it all up, even over time, as it accumulates faster than I can pick it up. So I started pondering how we could stop it – maybe make McDonalds responsible for all of their rubbish? Make them pay to send cleaners out and pick up every item of branded trash within a 5km radius?

Make businesses responsible for the roadside rubbish outside their premises? What about the parkland? Who is responsible for that? Pay people for the rubbish they turn in? Container deposit schemes for plastic bottles? What about the lids on coffee cups?

Until it finally dawned on me that this was very much post-horse-bolting thinking. Picking up the rubbish is not the point. Stopping it being dropped is not even the point. The point is that we can’t afford to continue generating rubbish. We really can’t. We need to come to grips with the idea that there truly is nothing disposable. Rubbish persists, whether it’s in the streets, floating in the bay, or in landfill. It takes energy to create it, to transport it, and to trash it, and it still remains, a toxic blight on our landscape.

There are so many ways to avoid rubbish – keeping a water bottle with you for refilling, having a keep cup for your coffee, buying fresh, unpackaged food – yet most of them require effort. And goodness knows we’re all busy, exhausted, and stretched to our limits. But until we recognise that “disposable” is a myth, we’ll go on making the wrong choices every day, piling our earth high with rubbish that none of us wants in our garden.

These days everything is temporary. Hole in your jacket? Chuck it. Phone a couple of years old? Toss it, it’s obsolete. Ipad not the latest model? Upgrade! Microwave door broken? Get a new one! (microwave, not door)

We don’t repair things anymore. We are ashamed of things that are old, not the latest model. We have to have TODAY’s fashion in devices, clothes, and cars. But in the long term? This is just not going to work. We are going to be outnumbered, out-massed, and outlived by our own rubbish. What an epitaph.

Hands off Point Nepean

Have you ever gazed out over a pristine beach and felt both awed and calmed by its beauty?

Beach scene

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a forest, breathing in a sense of peace?

Have you ever wondered what it is about natural places that causes them to speak to us in this profound way? That changes us every time we interact with them? That draws us in and gives us a sense of connectedness and belonging?

These are the reasons we preserve these magical places in National Parks. According to the Australian government:

“National parks are usually large areas of land that are protected because they have unspoilt landscapes and a diverse number of native plants and animals. This means that commercial activities such as farming are prohibited and human activity is strictly monitored.

Like zoos, national parks have several purposes. The foremost of these is to protect native flora and fauna. But national parks are also there so Australians and foreign visitors can enjoy and learn about our unique environment, heritage and culture.”

Unfortunately somebody will need to update this – it is becoming increasingly clear that national parks are now nothing more than commercial opportunities. After all, we wouldn’t want our forests “locked up”, would we, Mr Abbott? The Federal government plans to put a coal port slap bang in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef – not merely a national park, but a world heritage area. An irreplaceable treasure.

And now the Victorian government plans to excise a huge chunk of the Point Nepean National Park for commercial development.

Pt Nepean was declared a National Park in 2009, after years of vigorous campaigning by the local community.

Beach at the Quarantine Station, Pt Nepean National Park
Beach at the Quarantine Station, Pt Nepean National Park

Understandably, they believed this meant that the park was now protected, open to the public for ever more, to be preserved and maintained as a national treasure.  Point Nepean includes the old Quarantine Station, and if you have never visited, I urge you to make the time to go while you still can, because it is an amazing site – a wonderful combination of stunning scenery and the incredibly moving stories of those early settlers, brought off ships and housed in quarantine on this wild and remote patch of coast.

See it while you can, because if the State government has its way it will be rezoned, stripped of its environmental and heritage protections, and access restricted to wealthy clients of the “Wellness Centre” and “Geothermal Spa”. Of course, there is no geothermal spa at the site, but it’s only a matter of drilling around one kilometre into the earth, and with any luck they will find some nice hotsprings to bring to the surface – without damaging the surrounding bushland, you understand, because of course drilling one kilometre (one thousand metres! Can they really be serious?) into the earth is so easy to do in a non-disruptive, non-destructive fashion.

The proposed development includes a jetty designed to allow easy access for speedboats coming from around the bay. Which sounds all very fine until you realise that the jetty would be right in the middle of an integral section of Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park, and a known dolphin nursery. According to Parks Victoria, the thinking behind the park is this:

“By keeping some of these marine areas in a natural state, free from potentially damaging human activities, we will protect these environments into the future. Victorians will also benefit from the positive effects that this protection will have on recreation and tourism, community education and scientific research.”

Which seems rather at odds with a high-traffic jetty encouraging speed boats and jet skis through an already fragile area. The development is being fast tracked and deliberately placed outside normal planning controls and public scrutiny, which is always a red flag. If it is truly of benefit to the community why try to hide it, and avoid public discussion and debate?

I often think that the measure of a truly civilized society is the value it places on intangible things that don’t fit in traditional economic models. On community, on nature, on sustainability, on relationships.  On things we can’t easily label with a price tag. Our relationships with these wild places are irreplaceable. As we break down our connection with the natural world and base our lifestyles on foundations of ipads and concrete, we lose a vital part of ourselves.

I often walk on the beach at Pt Nepean, and I frequently see dolphins playing in the shallows. My family and I pick up rubbish along the beach, most of it washed up from other areas of the bay. When I told my girls, aged 11 and 7, that there was a big development proposed for the area, they were horrified. “There’s too much rubbish there already!” they cried. Sums it up, really.

PS. If you want to protect our history and our national parks, you can contact your member of Parliament and urge them to act.

How could you, Mr Abbott?

I spent the holidays with my family having the most wonderful holiday I can remember. We went to Heron Island, where not only were our myriad food issues just brilliantly catered for, we made breathtakingly wonderful new friends, and relaxed properly for the first time in years.

The reason we were so relaxed, apart from bonding with fabulous people, was the Great Barrier Reef. We snorkeled for hours every day, and without fail we saw new and wondrous things every time. We didn’t have to leave the island, we just stepped off the beach, put our masks in the water and were overcome with the incredible biodiversity all around us.

We swam with turtles, who were magnificently unconcerned with our presence.

green turtle

We discovered sea beds carpeted with cow tail rays, shovel headed rays, and white spotted eagle rays, so camouflaged against the sand that we often didn’t notice until we swam right over the top of them.

sting rays

We saw fish and coral of astounding colours and variation, and learnt bizarre and wondrous things about the lives and behaviour of a myriad of weird creatures – like the sea cucumber who can squirt out its internal organs at you when it feels threatened (I do feel that “Stop, or I’ll throw my kidneys at you!” doesn’t sound like the most frightening of threats), the sea star who can casually drop off one of its legs and feast on it if it feels like a snack, or the beautiful reef sharks who are harmless to humans, despite their clear and slightly creepy resemblance to their larger brethren.

While walking among the coral at low tide we had an Epaulette shark swim right up to us and pose, helpfully, for photos.

Epaulette SharkAnd we saw brilliantly coloured sea stars just hanging out on the rocks. Sometimes literally, as they eject their stomachs in order to digest large food.

Blue Linkia Sea StarI could rave on for pages and pages about the astonishing and wonderful things that we saw, but overlaying the trip was an overwhelming, desperate sadness. This richly biodiverse environment is under catastrophic threat, and our politicians seem to be actively hastening its demise.

They do things like ignore the overwhelmingly strong evidence that human driven climate change will spell the end of this kind of environment in an alarmingly short time, doing away with an effective carbon tax and subsidizing coal and fossil fuels to an absurdly uneconomic degree. They approve coal ports in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. They decide that this stunning environment and all its creatures would be the perfect place to dump dredging spoil.

They are trashing our environment, our world, and our future, for reasons I cannot possibly begin to fathom. They may not be  playing dice with the universe, but they are playing God in an all too tangible and destructive fashion, and we don’t have long to stop them before this exceptional place is gone for good. And that will be just the start of our woes.

Fish and coral at Heron Reef

What right do we have to wantonly and irrevocably destroy this most remarkable place for a fistful of dollars? And how do we stop it??

The new normal

Here in Melbourne, Spring has suddenly sprung. Truly it has – don’t bother me with your petty calendar-based technicalities, I know Spring when I bask in it.

Outside the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and the temperature has reached that balmy level where, if it were summer, we’d all be muttering about brass monkeys and their frozen … er… seed cases (this is a family friendly website, ok?). Truly, it’s 17 degrees out there and we’re breaking out the t-shirts, shorts, and thongs, making plans to head for the beach. Weather like this in January would have us reaching for our coats and beanies. But coming as it does after a grey, cold winter, 17 degrees is pure, unadulterated bliss.

We are a remarkably adaptable species. We adjust quite quickly to new circumstances, and sometimes we forget that anything has even changed. What’s normal today is entirely dependent on what happened yesterday. Was it 12 degrees and rainy? Then 17 degrees is fine. But sometimes it pays to examine the new normal, and wonder if we have actually progressed. So here is a random list of normalities that could use some adjusting.

1. Politicians lie. They do. It’s a fact. We’re so used to it that it’s not even newsworthy anymore. It’s just a thing we know they do. I don’t know what the point of elections is anymore. We vote for some party on the basis of promises that we know they will break. We accept the lies, the inhumanity, and the gross inequity of their actions. Perfectly intelligent people swallow all kinds of lies like “saving lives by stopping the boats” and “budget emergencies”, even when evidence has shown them to be complete rubbish. And we are neither surprised nor horrified when they turn out to be corrupt. It’s just the way they are.

But we don’t have to accept it. We don’t have to vote for politicians. We can vote for independents, and minor parties. The major parties would have you believe that it leads to chaos, but Julia Gillard steered a hung parliament and a very fragile senate through some of the most significant progress Australia has seen in years. We got a National Disability Insurance Scheme, we got a price on carbon – a step that much of the world is now implementing, while watching in horror as we dismantle ours. The worst thing that can happen to a government is to have complete control. Good government is a process of negotiation, balance, and compromise.The more independents and minor parties get the vote, the more politicians will take note and start to listen to us. Your local member broke a promise? Sack ’em. It’s the only way they’ll learn.

2. We need new stuff. It’s hard rubbish time in my area, and the number of large, fully functional televisions that have been thrown out because their owners have shiny new flat screen tvs is ASTOUNDING. All because we need new stuff. We picked up a coffee table that needs a couple of nails and a polish to be as good as new. It’s a sturdy, high quality table. It’s lovely. But it was chucked on the scrap heap, because we need new stuff. More with the shiny things. Newsflash: We don’t need new stuff. Things can be repaired. Things can be polished. I can imagine a whole new class of profession in the future: people who fix stuff. Freaky, eh?

3. There’s rubbish everywhere. Yes, there is. But like politicians, we don’t have to accept that. We can take responsibility for our own rubbish. We can create less rubbish (don’t get me started on coffee pods), and dispose of what we do create carefully. We can pick up a little of everyone else’s rubbish every now and then. How many times have you walked into a school, a shopping centre, or a carpark and thought “how disgusting, people are such pigs!” and yet not done anything about it? Be the change you want to see in the world.

4. We need cars. We don’t, you know. We have feet. We have bicycles. We have public transport. Sure, there are arguments against many of those things, but you have more power in your body than you give it credit for. You can walk further than you think you can. You can ride further than you think you can. And the beautiful part is that the more you do it, the more you can do it. Got kids to transport? Get yourself a cargo bike. Cheaper than a second car, and you’ll save yourself the cost of a gym membership too. I’m not saying cars aren’t useful, but does your family really need two?

5. Productive=Busy. We are greatly invested in being busy these days. Wasted time is anathema. Got to be up and doing! But if there is one single thing I have learnt from being ill for a long time, it is that sometimes the most productive thing we can do is nothing at all. Mindfulness, stillness, peace and quiet – whatever you call it, we all need it, and we don’t value it nearly enough. I recharge my phone with ferocious obsessiveness, rarely letting it get flat. But I let myself get flat all the time. When was the last time you prioritized recharging yourself?

6. We mustn’t interfere. I have friends who live on a beautiful beach in Tasmania, where signs say dogs aren’t allowed, as it is a significant nesting area for a number of threatened species. Nonetheless, dog owners take their dogs there regularly, even off the lead. Rather than tut-tutting under their breath, my friends call them on it. Gently. Tactfully. But ever so firmly. They’re clever about it. They give people a chance to save face with comments like “Did you realize that dogs aren’t allowed on this beach?” which gives the owners the chance to say “Oooh, no, thanks for letting me know” and scuttle away with their tails between their legs (sorry). They still see dogs on that beach, but there are less of them, and they rarely see anyone they’ve spoken to coming back. This is how progress is made.

The mum next door screams at her kids a lot? Strike up a conversation. Maybe she really needs someone to talk to. There’s a dad in the supermarket with his toddler on the floor, screaming up a storm? Reach out to him. “Hah, I’ve had days I’d have liked to do that!” or “we’ve all been there, eh?” to let him know he’s not alone. When I was away from work for an extended period, I got lots of messages, emails, texts and phone calls, just checking that I was ok. I even got a few visits.

The world needs more reaching out, not less. So often we have no idea what’s going on, even next door to us.

What’s normal to you, and how much of it needs to change?

If it ain’t broke, throw it away anyway

Our 20 year old microwave broke yesterday. The mechanism still works, but the door opener snapped so that the microwave could no longer be opened. My husband, who has the heart, soul, and incidentally the degree of an Engineer got it down, choked a little on the accumulated dust behind it, and took it apart to see if he could fix it.

Inside he found a piece of aged, brittle plastic that had snapped. And then he asked me a curious question: “So, Lin, do we want a new microwave, or shall we fix it?”

“Is it hard to fix?”

“No, I just need to find a bit of wood or metal, shape it to fit, and screw it in.”

“Ok, I think we fix it, don’t we? By which I mean you fix it, and I’ll stand around looking impressed.” (I’m a software girl. I don’t do hardware. It’s fiddly and I tend to break myself in the process.)

Roughly 20 minutes later the microwave was fixed, cleaned, and back in its rightful place.

What puzzles me is that if I did not have access to this wonderfully talented & obliging engineer-type person, I don’t think I would have hesitated – I’d have chucked it out and got a new one. Sure, the big ticket items like fridges and washing machines usually rate an attempt (generally expensive, often futile) at repair, but smaller items like microwaves and coffee machines are alarmingly disposable. I’m not even sure I could find someone willing to repair a 20 year old microwave, if I tried.

Indeed, when my coffee machine broke under warranty a couple of years ago, the shop did not even look at it, they simply replaced it. Odds are that machine wound up on a rubbish heap somewhere, even though the broken part was simply a piece of tubing that needed replacing.

That’s the act of a society that has infinite resources to call upon. No limit to the metals and plastics we can chew up, and no constraint on the pollution we spit out.

Let me hear you say ‘smogulous smoke’ (smogulous smoke)
Schloppity schlop (schloppity schlop)
Complain all you want, it’s never ever, ever, ever gonna stop.
Come on how bad can I possibly be?
How ba-a-a-ad can I be? I’m just building an economy.
How ba-a-a-ad can I be? Just look at me pettin’ this puppy.
How ba-a-a-ad can I be? A portion of proceeds goes to charity.
How ba-a-a-ad can I be? How bad can I possibly be?

How bad can I be? The Lorax.
There are other signs of a society that believes it has infinite resources. Such a society might, for example, buy a new mobile phone, laptop or tablet device every year. My phone company spammed me incessantly when my contract was up, trying to persuade me to buy a new phone. They could not wrap their heads around the idea that the one I’ve got is working just fine, thanks.
Or it might package food to within an inch of its life (or perhaps beyond) in foil, foam trays, and plastic. It might produce plastic toys that break on the first use, and pack them into plastic packages, tie them down with plastic cable ties, anchor them to a plastic backboard, and shrink wrap the lot in still more plastic.
It might produce an infinite variety of single purpose items that nobody actually needs, like separate cleaning sprays for kitchen, bathroom, and laundry benches, another for shower screens, and still another for the toilet. Oh, and don’t forget the magically different floor spray. (We use a combination of vinegar and bicarb for all of that, and it’s amazingly effective, despite the devastating lack of brightly coloured packaging and almost, but not quite, entirely unreal floral perfumes.)
Such a society might throw away bike tubes every time they puncture. Buy coffee in take away cups every day. Store leftovers in disposable plastic wrap, and take lunch to work or school every day in new plastic bags. It might even buy a single item at the supermarket, put it in a plastic bag, and then just drop the plastic bag on the ground somewhere when it’s no longer needed.
And maybe, one day, such a society might pause and take a good hard look at itself. Such a society might wonder what kind of a world it was handing to its children.
And then it might take a travel mug to buy coffee. It might choose simple, multi-purpose cleaning products, and use reusable containers for leftovers and lunches. It might buy in bulk to minimize packaging, and refuse plastic bags. It might even choose to ride, walk, and catch public transport instead of driving.
And who knows? Such a society might even feel good about itself, eventually.


Hear me Roar

Tonight I went to a Wheeler Centre Fifth Estate discussion on Climate Change. I left home feeling despairing about climate change, politics, Australia’s treatment of refugees and my children’s chance of a future. I arrived at the talk buoyed by a catch up with a dear friend, yearning to find hope in a very bleak environmental and political landscape.

While they painted the initial picture, there were many moments when I sighed deeply and slumped in my seat. I am pretty well educated about climate change and its effects, but there was new information I really didn’t want to hear, and the general consensus was that we have left it way too late and are fairly seriously stuffed.

There is a tendency among people like me to gaze sadly into our lattes and bemoan the ignorance of the masses. To lambast the people who voted for Tony Abbott (never people we know). To assert that we would sort it out pdq if only our preferred political group were in power, for any given value of “sort” and “it” and indeed “political”.

We tend not to debate politics with those we don’t know, for fear of hearing something we might not like, or perhaps more charitably for fear of offending others. We don’t talk politics, religion or climate change, because they are too contentious. Upon hearing others spouting rubbish in the guise of facts, whether it’s about climate, refugees or vaccination, we sigh, or sneer, and turn away. We don’t take them on, because that wouldn’t be nice, or comfortable, or polite.

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sat quietly, agreed politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything

Katy Perry – Roar.

True, it’s difficult to debate these hot button topics without getting worked up – I am a clear cautionary tale. I find it incredibly challenging to discuss these issues calmly and with a clear head, because I am passionate about them. And yet that is precisely the reason why I should engage, discuss, dispute and contend at every available opportunity. One of the comments made tonight that resonated wildly with me is that the media has become a part of the corporate system.  There is no space between the interests of big business and the voice of the media. Because we are in a country where the political agenda is massively skewed by the interests of the resources sector, it is phenomenally important that independent voices are heard.

It is crucial that academics, writers, artists, teachers – anyone who thinks, reads, and engages with current issues, regardless of their trade or profession – have a huge responsibility to speak out. To write. To speak. To debate. To engage, not just in the comfortable sanctuary of like minded friends with lattes and chardonnay at the ready, but out in the real world, wherever people are talking, reading, listening and acting.

This is part of the reason I write. It’s not so that people will agree with me. Some of the best articles I’ve ever written have been the ones that people have disagreed with quite vehemently, because they have resulted in debate and forced me to think about my opinions – sometimes to change them. I write in the faint and desperate hope that people might think a little about the issues I write about.

We need more thought, and less doing what the advertising industry tells us to do. We need to think and talk about where we are headed, and what we want to do about it. We need to speak up.

On the way home I heard a snippet of  “Roar” by Katy Perry. It seemed appropriate. I am going to roar. Wherever possible I will roar politely and calmly, but roar I will. Join me. Engage. Debate. Roar.

To that end, I have included some of the most interesting quotes from this evening for your inspiration. The group consisted of Nobel Prize winning scientist Peter Doherty, CEO of Greenpeace Australia David Ritter, and writer & investigative journalist Chloe Hooper.

“All scientists are skeptics, and we are most skeptical about our own work. The one thing you will find about [climate change] deniers is that they are never skeptical about their own statements.” Peter Doherty.

“Climate change has been allowed to become a point in the culture wars.” David Ritter.

“I was operating under a set of assumptions about how much contact people have with the natural world.” David Ritter.

“The experience that people do have is increasingly mediated through screens.” David Ritter (or possibly Peter Doherty, I really need to learn shorthand or take a laptop to these events.)

“The problem is that the media has become part of the corporate system. There’s no space between the media and the interests of these big corporations.” Peter Doherty.

It is so important in a country where the political economy is so influenced by the resources sector that the thinking people of the country are vocal and honest about what they think – David Ritter (paraphrased).

“It’s very bad that this has been badged as a left/right issue.” Peter Doherty.

“It’s not about right and left, it’s about right and wrong, and the right is wrong and the left is right.” Rod Quantock.

“It is so fundamental that we get climate change out of the cul de sac of the culture wars.” David Ritter.

“The rise of renewables is to some extent inexorable.” David Ritter.

“I’d like to see us being a lot more hardnosed about our economic forecasting. If we plug our future in to fossil fuels I think we’re mad, quite frankly.” Peter Doherty. “We don’t seem to be capable of doing the wargaming around the economy and the effects of climate change.”

“Everything now is presented as though there is going to be no pain… We can’t tackle this issue without making very substantial changes, and that’s not going to be easy, because people don’t like change.” Peter Doherty.

“The time has come for civil disobedience… we have exhausted all of the existing lawful means for challenging the dominance of the fossil fuel industry and we are seeing criminal negligence in the face of civilization’s collapse.” (slightly paraphrased because I can’t write fast enough) David Ritter.

“I think it’s important not to take a reflexive ideological view of any technology, but I have not seen any modeling that says that [nuclear energy] can get there in time.” David Ritter.

Feeling the burn

Like many of my left-leaning compatriots, I have spent the weeks following our federal election alternately despairing and angry, while “our” government dismantles anything to do with climate change and renewable energy, signals its utter contempt for women (they just don’t have much merit, apparently), and sets about making it illegal to publicly support boycotting companies who do environmental or social damage (a move even Chris Berg of the IPA  seems to feel is going too far).

Climate change scares me. Not, as the likes of Andrew Bolt would have it, because I am a crazy alarmist, but because there is an utterly unprecedented degree of scientific consensus saying that we need to act, and act now. That the world is very close to environmental catastrophe. That it may already be too late to avert the worst of it, but that we are making things worse with every day we deny the need to change. Scientists. Climate Scientists. The Scientists whose job it is to study these things.

Sadly Tony Abbott doesn’t feel we need science. What Tony Abbott feels we need is big business making obscene profits at any cost. That’s what’s important. David Suzuki, on QandA on Monday night, said “We now have governments who seem to believe that the corporate agenda is the job of government.” As I watched him debate the audience, I alternated between cheering him on and despairing at some of the questions posed. Not to mention the comments on twitter.

I feel helpless. I can’t influence the government – I lack the billions of dollars required for that. I can’t change the world. I try to live as sustainably as I can, but ultimately what difference does one person – even one family – make?

But then at the end of the program, Dr Suzuki said something striking. He talked about the old slogan “think global, act local” and pointed out that as soon as you think global you are paralysed with horror, and you feel unutterably helpless. He said we need to think locally and act locally. That maybe we can’t influence governments, but we can influence the people around us. We can organise on a local level, and when we do these things successfully, they spread.

I am already trying to organise on a local level – I have a facebook group dedicated to sharing home grown produce (the Monash Area Shared Home grown Produce network, look it up if you are local!) such as fruit, herbs and veggies when they’re in season. It has a small but dedicated band of members, and I have hopes that it will take off. We can do more, like planting fruit trees on our nature strips, and lobbying the council to do the same, rather than planting merely decorative trees.

We are involved with a group organising a veggie garden for our school. We cycle everywhere we can, and encourage others to do the same. There is evidence that your network of friends influences everything from your behaviour to your weight, so perhaps just seeing us out and about with our various bikes is helping to change our corner of the world, just a little bit – just as seeing other people out on their bikes has influenced us.

I am planning to work really hard on my veggie garden this year, and share ideas, techniques and produce with the local network and other friends. I’m going to try to buy seasonal produce grown locally wherever possible, rather than grapes from the US in winter. I am going to stick with my “old” mobile phone when my contract falls due (sorry, telcos, no churn for me!), and put off buying new appliances until the old ones are quite, quite dead. I’m going to drive even less, ride and walk even more, and talk more about it.

Recently I had a birthday and several friends gave me plants, most of them edible. It might be that I have collected like-minded friends around me, but I think it’s also that they know me and know what I like. One friend said she thought about buying me flowers but decided on strawberry plants instead. They make me smile every time I see them, and soon they will be flowering, I hope, and making me salivate too.

Maybe I can’t change the whole world. But I have hopes that I can at least improve my small corner of it. And maybe, just maybe, we will build a future for our children.

Do you want plastic with that?

Nurdles found on a Sorrento beach

These are nurdles. Tiny beads of plastic that are the basis of plastics manufacture. Nurdles arrive at plastics factories in big sacks, which are then emptied into vats to be melted down into the plastic rubbish-to-be of your choice – bags, toys, disposable spoons and plates, you name it. Every time those sacks are emptied, or a small hole develops in a sack during transport, a few nurdles escape. Just a few tiny plastic beads, so small you could fit around 6 nurdles on your average little fingernail – nothing alarming, nothing to stress about, surely?

These nurdles were found on the beach at Sorrento. Nurdles are found at every beach. Nurdles are found in every ocean. Nurdles, those few, tiny escapees, are everywhere. They wash down the storm water drains when it rains. They flow down our streams and rivers and into our bays and oceans. They wash up on beaches. They have interesting properties – they absorb toxins from the water.

Nurdles rapidly become tiny toxic time bombs, and being small and floating, they look exactly like fish food. Sea birds eat them. Small fish eat them. Big fish eat them. Big fish also eat the small fish, concentrating the toxins up the food chain. Then we eat the big fish. Fish and chips for dinner? Do you want nurdles with that? Because you’re getting them whether you like it or not. With a delightful toxic sauce.

A couple of weeks ago my 10 year old and I were privileged to go out on Polperro  to take part in a plastics survey in Port Phillip bay. We met film maker Michael J Lutman, who is making a film about the plastics in Port Phillip Bay. He has also made a film about a plastics survey in the South Atlantic, called Plasticized.  Go watch it – it’s a shocking account of a trip through the South Atlantic, surveying the plastics all the way through, including the South Atlantic gyre – one of the vast islands of rubbish found in every ocean on the planet.

We also met Neil Blake, Director of Port Phillip Ecocentre and long time champion of Port Phillip Bay and its ecosystem. Neil has a tiny amount of funding to do a survey of the plastics in the bay. For the documentary we did a short trawl through the waters of the bay. The water looked clean. There was no visible rubbish. Yet the trawl found plastic. Perhaps it’s not surprising to find plastic in the waters of Port Phillip Bay – a busy waterway with a big city on its shores. But as you can see in Plasticized, the Movie, plastic is everywhere, infesting the waters of even the most remote “untouched” oceans of the world.

After we had trawled the bay we walked on the beach for a short distance – maybe 100 metres. We picked up just some of the rubbish we saw along the way:

Rubbish found on the beach near Sorrento Pier

The haul included plastic straws and spoons, scrunchies, bits of tape, soft drink bottles, plastic signs, bottle tops, hair clips, fishing line and various plastic connectors, rope, and bits of piping, among other things. It’s easy to see how the plastic winds up on the beach. After all, you’re walking on the beach and holding a straw. There’s no bin within reach. What’s one straw in the scheme of things? Oops. It drops and is whipped away by the wind. Oh well. No harm done.

Or it’s the lid of a coffee cup, a plastic stirrer, a McDonalds soft drink cup, or the wrapper off a chocolate frog. It’s the plastic wrap from your sandwich, a bag from your shopping, the lid of your water bottle or a hair clip that falls out.

Each individual bit of plastic is so minor, but they accumulate to form an environmental disaster of staggering proportions – torturing and killing our marine life, from birds to dolphins and whales, drifting out to sea, filling every part of our planet, affecting every bit of our ecosystem. Rubbish in our oceans is the lasting result of our insatiable desire for disposable, breakable, temporary plastic junk. Every time you say no to plastic bags, recycle your plastic bottles, or use a keep cup, you keep a bit of plastic out of the ocean.

And at the root of it all is the omnipresent, ubiquitous nurdle. The nurdle seems to symbolise everything that’s wrong about our attitude to the world. Those tiny bits of plastic, drifting, unregarded, on the wind and the tide.

What’s a nurdle here or there? It’s an environmental disaster, that’s what.

There’s a longing in the sound

On the weekend I walked with my family on the beach near the Quarantine Station at Pt Nepean. It’s an exquisitely beautiful place, with surprisingly few visitors, despite the sunny weather. We had the beach to ourselves.

Beach at Pt Nepean

All our contact with the crew of the Polperro has made us very aware of litter and beaches. My 10 year old put hours into creating a digital presentation to persuade her whole school not to drop litter – because litter dropped in the city gets washed into storm water drains when it rains. In Melbourne those drains come out in creeks and rivers that lead to the bay, where rubbish wreaks all kinds of trauma and havoc on our wildlife. Dolphins and seals get tangled in string, fishing lines and plastic bags. Food waste and dog poo introduce nitrogen to the water and deplete oxygen, killing marine life and plants and polluting the bay.

So as we walked we collected the rubbish we saw. This is what we collected over a 50m stretch of beach – and bear in mind this was not long after heavy rains that would have washed most of the rubbish off the beach and into the bay.

Rubbish collected on the beach at Pt Nepean

There was a lot of polystyrene, wrappers and bottle lids. Many, many  soft drink and water bottles (surely the biggest marketing con of all time, selling bottled water in Melbourne where the water quality is so good), bits of string, and random unidentifiable scraps of plastic. There was even a toothbrush (the mind boggles).

In the process we found a rope that seemed to be partially buried, and we set about trying to excavate it, to get it off the beach and make sure it didn’t wash into the bay and cause trouble for our curious marine mammals. It was in an area of the beach where boats are explicitly prohibited, so there didn’t seem to be any legitimate reason for its presence. We dug and dug for over half an hour, periodically pulling on the rope to see if we could shift it. Every time the rope gave a little we got excited, thinking we almost had it out, but there was always more buried.

Buried rope on the beach at Pt Nepean

Miss 10 worked hard, accumulating blisters, scratches and grazes as she dug and scraped and pulled on the rope. She is passionate about dolphins, seals and the bay, and she was determined to get that rope out. In the end we had to admit defeat, taking consolation from the fact that the rope was so deeply buried it was unlikely to wash into the bay. I was proud of Miss 10 for her persistence, but even more proud that she was able to admit that we just couldn’t shift it and walk away, despite caring so passionately and trying so hard. Learning to let go is not a core skill of mine or Miss 10’s, so this was a big achievement for her.

We took photos of the rope, and the rubbish, to add to her presentation, and reminded each other that at least there was a bag full of rubbish that wasn’t going to wind up in the bay. Still it was disheartening not to be able to remove that rope, and it left visible scars on her heart.

With the rubbish on the beach still uppermost in my mind, I caught sight yesterday of a full page ad in the paper trying to persuade us all that a container deposit is a “great big tax” and monstrously unfair. The container deposit is an attempt to encourage recycling using the carrot of a 10c reward for every container returned. This 10 cent deposit is apparently a terrible threat to the likes of Coca-Cola, who are throwing the might of their PR and advertising budgets at it with an astonishing ferocity. It beggars belief. They are apparently afraid that people might buy less bottled water if it cost 10c more, and hence chip away at their profits.

It’s a tale that plays on endless repeat throughout our environment and our economy. Nothing must be allowed to stand in front of the great God Profit. Not dolphins or seals. Not the environment. Not climate change. Rubbish on beaches is good for Coca Cola’s bottom line, apparently. I can’t tell Miss 10 about this. She would demand to know why we put up with companies like this, and I just haven’t got an answer.

Lately I’ve found

when I start to think aloud

there’s a longing in the sound

there is more I could be.

Birds of Tokyo, Lanterns

That rope we failed to dig up is a good metaphor – for every bit of environmental destruction we tackle successfully, there are untold amounts still buried. We just can’t get to it all. We lack the strength, the persistence, the political will. We can’t dig the rubbish out of our economy. But maybe we can eventually learn from people like my 10 year old. She is determined to save the world where older and allegedly wiser heads have accepted the way things are. She inspires me to take action. She inspires her schoolmates. Maybe our children are the road to change.

Maybe they can show us that there really is more we could be.

Tell me lies

Critical thinking is a skill that remains sadly untaught – or at least unlearnt – throughout our society. Of course we don’t have time to analyse every statement and research every reported fact. To a large extent we trust the media to do it for us, but this is a risky move, especially when you see someone like Gina Rinehart buying into a media empire. It is widely reported that she expects to be able to control editorial content once she has a big enough share of Fairfax.

Is this what we have now? A system of media where whoever has the most money controls what we see, hear, and even feel?

GetUp recently circulated a video where Christopher Monckton suggested that the mining industry needed to create its own news channel in order to influence public opinion. Which leads me to ponder – who influences my opinion? Who influences yours? Are our opinions up for sale to the highest bidder?

It rather puts paid (hah!) to the notion of a free and fair press.

Even where motives may be less suspect, journalists frequently seem to lack the ability to apply basic critical thinking skills. That’s the charitable interpretation, of course – it may be that they simply go for the most alarming headline. Consider this one, out of The Age in Melbourne today: “Worst Retail year since 1984.” Gosh, that does sound bad. Given that retail sales have been growing, and that was – oh, my! – nearly 30 years ago, sales must have fallen dramatically to have been worse than 1984. However, 2 minutes spent reading the article shows that sales have grown since the year before.

What? How on earth does that work?

Worst retail year since 1984, yet sales have grown since the previous year?

Yes, boys and girls, apparently it is the worst year because it is the lowest growth of any year since 1984. So sales have grown – every year, in fact – but they grew a little less last year (the year before they grew by 2.5, this year a measly 2.4). Quite apart from the whole conversation about the sustainability of endless growth (as David Suzuki said: “Economists and cancer cells think they can grow forever”), I can’t help feeling that sales declining might justify that headline, but sales increasing just a fraction slower do not.

Ok, I would be the first to admit that I am not an economist. Economics is a closed book to me, (and probably a burnt book as well), but critical thinking has become something of a passion of mine. My kids despair of the suspicion with which I view any bold statement such as “Yes, Mum, I really did put all my clothes away”. I am renowned, and reviled, for checking the fine print and asking difficult questions like “what exactly do you mean by ‘away‘?”.

Sadly, most of the bold statements in the media don’t take much more effort to check, but we rarely bother. Levering open the cupboard door quickly shows the chaos within.

 Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies
Tell me lies
Oh, no, no you can’t disguise
You can’t disguise
Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

Tell me Lies, Fleetwood Mac

Sometimes I feel as though I am waging a lonely war on ignorance. Debunking myths like “J Random Store will give $500 to everyone who likes them on facebook”, blowing urban legends out of the water, picking apart alarmist news articles. It frustrates me how quickly and easily myths spread, and how slothfully the truth crawls after them.

It’s so easy to believe what some guy at the pub asserts as fact, particularly if it’s

scandalous: “Wiggles Wage War on ex-yellow Wiggle

or comforting: “Climate Change is nothing but a big conspiracy, go ahead and consume the world as voraciously as you can, it’ll be fine

or with a big whiff of schadenfreude about it: “Celebrities get divorced/go into rehab/do something stupid in public“.

The only thing we can do to save ourselves is to switch our brains on as often as possible. Ask the difficult questions. Query the bold assertions. Not only do we need to think for ourselves, but we need to encourage everyone else to think as well. So next time you hear someone assert something dubious, or swallow a headline whole, see if you can make them cough it up. Look a little deeper. Think a little harder.

Tiny things like this can change the world.

Take my word for it.